Have you ever created a Genius playlist on iTunes or set up a station on Pandora? Just plug in one song, and you instantly hear music that matches your tastes.
And now think of Zite, a brand new, free iPad magazine-like app that launched today, as the personalized news-gathering process or Pandora of news discovery, but with one noticeable advantage: Zite gets ‘smarter’ as you use it.
Reading news on Zite is a pleasure as you no longer have to go back and forth between information silos. Sign-in with your Twitter or Google account and it immediately starts generating targeted content. You can also choose from thousands of topics like journalism, the singularity or vegetarianism to customize the magazine.
Developed by researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Laboratory for Computational Intelligence, the technology behind Zite can learn your reading habits and personalize content based on your interests. According to them, Zite is the first iPad news reader “to go beyond manual customization.”
Zite crawls over half a million Web domains to find specific reading material that would be of interest to you, according to your social network and/or online reading behavior.
It evaluates this potential content by tracking signals (like tweets, comments, tags and sharing) from stories that indicate a certain level of social interest and momentum in the story. The result is a personalized magazine that gets more accurately targeted toward its reader the more it’s used.
When first opening the app, Zite will immediately begin personalizing your experience. Link a Twitter account or Google Reader, and Zite will analyze (not simply display) your feeds to create a magazine tailored to your interests. You might get sources you know, you might get content you want from sources you don’t know.
“It’s a combination of semantic- and statistically based machine learning,” says CEO Ali Davar, of Zite’s content algorithm, the technology of which has been in development for years.
“It works by looking at the articles you click on and the characteristics of those articles. Is the article longer or shorter? Is it skewed toward one element of a topic or another? Is it a political blog? If so, does it have have a right- or left-wing slant?”
Other popular iPad readers, like, for example, Silicon Valley-based Flipboard, which came out last July, require users to manually provide sources, whether media outlets or RSS feeds. Zite automates that process and continuously refines content so it’s fresher and dynamically tailored to one’s interests.
Zite isn’t just a mirror of your social-networking account. It figures out what you consider interesting according to your Twitter or Google Reader accounts, then fills your magazine with stories about similar topics.
It also tracks and learns from user behavior as people open stories (or don’t), so if users just read a story on Zite, its personalization still works. “The underlying philosophy of our algorithm is: You are what you read,” Davar says.
Users can tell Zite whether they enjoyed a particular article, whether they liked a particular source, or whether they want more news on a particular topic area. Zite then makes suggestions according to that knowledge. So, your Zite magazine will never be exactly like somebody’s else one.
“The difference between Flipboard and Zite is that with Zite, your sections are actually personalized,” Davar says. “On Flipboard, you pick sections and sources to customize your magazine – that’s what they call ‘personalized.’ But that’s really ‘customization.’ In essence, personalization is a technology -it’s something that learns from you.”
“So, for example, your technology section and someone else’s will look very different based on your behavior – rather than being the same generic thing that everyone else is seeing,” he added.
Vancouver-based Zite is well-funded, with $4 million from angels and Canadian grants, but it doesn’t have business relationships with publishers.
There are currently no ads in Zite, but Mr. Davar said the company will begin to put ads from publishers in the reading-mode pages of the magazine in a few months. He said the site may have ads that aren’t from publishers, but publishers have control regarding ads that appear on their content.
For now, Zite is limited to Apple’s iPad, just like Flipboard. However, Mr. Davar said he plans to get Zite on other tablets by this summer and on mobile devices and Web browsers before the end of this year. If you’d like a smarter way to handle information overload, Zite can do the dirty work of amassing relevant content for you.